by DeWayne Stallworth, Ph.D., Professor Psychology and Theology

originally published on

A meaningful existence for many African Americans entails acquiring a significant amount of privilege within the white world. The modus operandi for the modern day civil rights movement, to be sure, was to secure equity and equality within such a space. This is not to suggest that African Americans relinquished reverence toward their African heritage; for many, the desire to thrive in both black and white spaces was predicated upon an essential ethical and theological thought which suggested that America owed a debt to African Americans, and that God desired that African Americans survive and obtain more space within a constructed and privileged white world.

The African American tradition of survival commenced in the belly of the slave ship. This moment in history also created a black sub-world in which black spaces of elevation were limited. In order to survive, black space was often manipulated as a means to hinder the progression of blacks, often by other blacks. Although the notion of white privilege is aggressively critiqued from a black space, the same level of analysis ought to be applied to a critique of privilege as seen in the black sub-world.

The origin of abuse of black privilege can be located within the context of a pre-African American experience. African Kings, for instance, often abused their privilege by manipulating members of the tribe and selling them to opportunistic European slave-traders. In the 15th century, the King of Benin consorted with Christian missionaries that he would sell his servants into slavery for a white wife.1 It was within such an oppressive experience of betrayal that many blacks created a sub-world in which socially stratified privilege was often used for both good and bad purposes. Black privilege entails possessing the power to manipulate space, regardless the degree, within the black sub-world. Black privilege can also be used within white space to progress and/or regress black privilege. This is a powerful phenomenon as it entices one to the possibility of more, and more is often located within the confines of white space.

Although black privilege is not inherently dangerous, the sinister manipulation of power within the black sub-world has the potential to hinder the progression of the black race. But how might blacks, as an oppressed group, be complicit in their own oppression? Even the oppressed have the ability to oppress others within a stratified sub-world. Newly convicted individuals, for instance, regardless the distinction that was held in the outside world, will eventually observe the hierarchal stratification that governs prisoner relations. Although they, themselves, are oppressed, prisoners nevertheless possess the power to manipulate and control space in their sub-world.

The recent murder of acclaimed hip-hop artist Nipsey Hussle is a current case study of how back privilege is abused. The alleged assailant, Eric Holder, a black man, killed another black man who was attempting to change the negative trajectory of his community. Was Eric Holder privileged? Yes, he was afforded space, power, and manipulation to carry out this alleged assassination. The ability to take life is the highest form of privilege. The silver lining to this tragic narrative is the fact that Nick Cannon, another acclaimed black artist, has committed himself to the task of completing positive work that Nipsey Hussle started. Nick Canon is using his space, power and manipulation for good. Will another tragedy have to occur before blacks visualize and take ownership of their privilege—I certainly hope not.

1. George Washington Williams, History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880, Chapter IV.